Their Memories Tell the Story of Aerospace
Following are excerpts from oral history interviews conducted with Aerospace personnel. Read selected histories in their entirety at www.aero.org/corporation/oralhistories.html.
was founding president of Aerospace, a position he held from 1960 until his retirement in 1977. These remarks are from an interview conducted by Steven Strom on March 7, 2001, at Getting’s home in Coronado, California.
“The MOL program was well on its way, and as far as I can remember it met all its intended capabilities when suddenly it was canceled. The impact of this cancellation was very great on Aerospace. It was the largest program that Aerospace ever had. It involved some four hundred of our best scientists and engineers, and it obviously didn’t make any sense to fire all of these pick-of-the-crop individuals when we didn’t have any warning. And since the cancellation happened in June, it was too late to enter a substitute program in the next year’s budget. So, in short, we restructured all our programs as rapidly as possible to readjust and prevent a cataclysmic effect on Aerospace, which an arbitrary firing of the people involved in MOL would have caused. President Nixon, who had canceled the program, did establish on February 13, 1969 a “blue ribbon” committee to lay out the goals of the space program after the successful conquest of going to the moon and back [the Space Task Group]. Vice President Agnew was the chairman. There were … programs that were suggested by Aerospace to the committee, and one of these was what became the GPS.”
joined Aerospace in 1961 as director of the Electronics Research Laboratory and served as Engineering Group vice president until 1986. Strom interviewed him on June 12, 2005, at Weiss’s home in Los Angeles.
“Exciting times. Decision making was quick; for example, the laser was invented, and within months we had a laser laboratory. I wanted the antenna on what was Building 120. I’d spend ten minutes with Dr. Getting, and he’d say, ‘Fine, go ahead.’ So it was a wonderful opportunity. But the most important thing, one of the contributions I made in those early days is to get the programs to accept research as an important element and to get the Air Force to accept that. Because, you know, the funding is always difficult for research—it’s not immediate.
We had difficulty with funding as overhead, so I said [to the contracting officer], ‘We ought to have a special fund called Mission-Oriented Research and Experimentation.’ So he said, ‘No, I don’t like that term, because that’s MORE.’ M-O-R-E. I said, ‘OK, let’s call it Mission-Oriented … Investigation.’ And that is how MOIE was invented….
FLTSATCOM was on the launch stand in Florida, and the Naval Research Lab said, ‘You can’t launch it because it has contaminated transistors on it.’ So they asked the labs, they asked me, to look into this and make a recommendation. Well, we studied it day and night, seven days a week for two weeks, sliced and diced it up, and tried to find out what the chemistry and physics is. And we plotted accelerated testing against temperature, and so on, and the lab staff said, ‘This thing’ll last seven years.’
So there was a big meeting with the admirals, and generals, and TRW. And first, TRW made a presentation—they recommended that they launch, but they didn’t have the technological rationale for it at all. Then, Naval Research Lab said, ‘It will fail on launch, because the contacts are contaminated, and it’ll break.’ And then I came in, and I said, ‘We believe it’ll last seven years,’ we’ve done the following tests, and we’ve done the Arrhenius plots, and from an engineering point of view, we see no reason why you should not launch. Besides, if you bring it back, and open it up, and remove and put new stuff in, chances are you’ll make it worse, not better. And the admiral asked, ‘Well, what’ll happen if it fails on launch?’ And I said, ‘I’ll be in trouble!’
And it lasted 10 years. So Aerospace’s role does not always have to be the policeman who says, ‘No.’ It also, at times, because of its expertise—which in many cases exceeds that of the contractors—could go the other way and say, ‘You could do something, even though there is some risk.’ Aerospace has that role as well.”
principal director, Western Range Directorate, managed the operations of the corporation’s launch programs at Vandenberg. Wambolt joined Aerospace at the end of 1960 in the Mercury program office, which in 1962 became the Gemini program office. Strom interviewed him on August 2, 2001, at Vandenberg.
“The Gemini mission that stands out in my mind the most is Gemini 6, which was piloted by Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford. That first mission attempt was in October of 1965, and it was supposed to be a rendezvous mission with a Gemini target vehicle, which was made into an Agena vehicle. Well, the Agena blew up before the Gemini-Titan mission was launched. The Atlas-Agena mission had taken place already, and during the Agena burn to the right altitude, the Agena exploded from propulsion problems that were associated with the Agena itself. For that reason, there was an abort of the Gemini-Titan and that mission was put on hold until December of that same year. That mission was called 6A, and there was a lot of pressure to put that mission back in the air because they wanted to rendezvous. And one of the things that happened, that I remember being a propulsion person, was that engine when that Titan first stage shut down before liftoff prematurely [December 12, 1965]. And Wally Schirra, being a clever engineer, knew right away what had happened. He told us our engine umbilical had fallen out, and we weren’t sure he was right until after we looked at the data and we realized that we had lost a ground connector on the engine. But there was an interesting byproduct of that story because when we looked at the data, we noticed that the other engine had a very strange appearance in its gas generator. It didn’t look normal, so we looked further at the data and determined that there was something blocking the gas generator oxidizer line of the other engine on that Gemini mission. So it was serendipitous that we shut down because the other engine was not going to thrust. And it turned out that somebody had left a dust cap in one of the oxidizer lines—the gas generator. When we took the gas generator all apart to find restrictions, we found a plastic dust cap lodged in the line that was feeding oxidizer to the gas generator.”
was executive vice president when he retired in 1998. Paulikas joined Aerospace in June 1961 as a member of the technical staff in the Space Physics Laboratory. Strom spoke with him on March 26, 2003, at Aerospace headquarters in El Segundo, California.
“The space age was just beginning, and I was very interested in space activities, so I decided to go to work in space physics at Aerospace. I got in almost on the ground floor in the spring of 1961. It was a new company, new organization, and a new field of research. It was an opportunity to start an organization from scratch, to start research programs from scratch. The problems of the space environment were basically unknown, so Aerospace and Space Physics Laboratory had a very important role in establishing some of the initial research programs that led to substantial contributions by Aerospace in various fields of space physics. It was an incredibly exciting time, and it was fun. Having fun doesn’t mean we didn’t do an enormous amount of work. Let me be clear—we used to work like dogs. You were always driving up to Vandenberg in the middle of the night, working at the launchpads in the fog and the wind, just freezing. And you’re clambering over this rocket, and there were your experiments, and you’d do the checkouts. It sort of sent shivers down your spine. It was great, and I think that the thing that was fun was we were doing exciting research.”
was vice president of Development Group when he retired in 1995. He joined Aerospace in 1962 as a member of the technical staff in Special Programs. In 1974, he became principal director of the navigation program, GPS, then in development. Strom interviewed Lassiter on December 18, 2002, and February 18, 2003, in Torrance, California.
“Fortunately for me I was able to persuade some, I think, really critical people to come to work on the [GPS] program. Irv Rzepnik came in to take over the space segment, and Irv brought a tremendous amount of experience in knowing how to get programs tested and how to put good hardware on orbit. And so Irv set about, for the space segment anyhow, that we really test this thing end to end—and furthermore, that if we did a good job of that, we could save some money and speed up everything by not doing the assembly and test at Vandenberg when we were ready to launch. But we could do the factory-to-pad concept. And that changed a lot of the whole test philosophy and test program of the way that we went about providing validation for good space hardware. So Irv was able to convince Rockwell again that they needed to really do a good job of testing at the box level from all their subcontractors, of all of the boxes that go into the satellite. And that was a really total sea-state change from when we entered the program. So that was a major development contribution.
The atomic clocks were really a big developmental item, the rubidium and cesium clocks. And John Hurrell in the research labs did some great stuff to help in the development and the analysis of why we were getting early failures on orbit with the rubidium clocks. A lot of that was done in the Aerospace labs. We had some early stuff about attitude control problems. And we had something called the Analog and Digital Lab, and Irv pushed through a simulation. When we launched the first satellite , there was a failure in the sensor system. And we were able to, in real-time, get the analog and digital hardware-in-the-loop simulation that we’d been doing at Aerospace. And in real time from the control center up in Sunnyvale giving the commands, we were able to get lock on the Earth and get the spacecraft stabilized as it was trying to acquire the Earth. And that was on our first launch, and if we hadn’t kept that going, there was a good chance that bird would have been lost, and that would have been our failure on the first launch instead of a tremendous success on the first launch. So, there were several things that Aerospace just played a vital role in: in the clocks, in the hardware development, in the testing program…a lot of things.”
was vice president of the Engineering and Technology Group when he retired from Aerospace in 1996. He joined Aerospace in February 1962 as a member of the technical staff in the engineering division, and later served as principal director for Navstar/GPS. Jon Bach interviewed Boardman on December 4, 2007, at Aerospace headquarters in El Segundo.
“Just picture what the space program was in its absolute infancy, in this country. There were things that we wanted to do but we had no idea, really, how to do them. We wanted to get payloads into space that performed their missions, and there was no precedent. We were dealing with new materials. We were dealing with very, very challenging technological problems in almost every scientific and technical area you can imagine—whether it was telemetry or communications or structures or materials or optics or you name it. So, that sense of newness—not being able to go to a textbook on a shelf somewhere and read how to do it—created a very pioneering-like, bold, ‘imagineering’ sort of an environment….
There were a lot of naysayers about GPS in those days [the late 1970s]. Today, you look at it and you say, ‘Well, how could that possibly be?’ I mean, there isn’t a car running on the L.A. freeways that doesn’t make use of the thing. How could that ever have been thought of as not a good idea? Well, you gotta remember: First of all, the smallest GPS receiver conceived of in that era weighed about 60 pounds and cost somewhere around 60, 70 thousand dollars. It was intended for a man to walk around with, I suppose, if he was a strong soldier, or put on a jeep, or maybe stuck in a tank. But it was a very clumsy, expensive piece of technology, and there was no thought, in the program office or in the government, for that matter, at that time, for any commercial applications whatsoever. It was purely military. I remember kind of a funny thing happened back in the early 1980s. The program office got an inquiry from the Cadillac division of General Motors, asking about the possibility of incorporating a GPS receiver in one of the cars. And we all sat around in a morning staff meeting laughing our heads off. I mean, how’s that gonna work? A Cadillac cost about maybe eight thousand dollars in those days, and here’s this monstrous machine that they want to incorporate. We didn’t have sufficient, I guess, imagination.”
retired in 2008 as principal staff advisor in the Office of the Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, and Treasurer. He joined Aerospace in 1967 as a junior accountant. Bach interviewed Deacon on June 4, 2008, in El Segundo.
“There were about 60 people [in 1967] in the Accounting and Finance department. It was very exacting, very precise, no room for any errors, and that was really a standard. There was no deviation. There could not be ‘plugging,’ as the old accounting term, it had to come out exact. And as a result, there was a tremendous amount of hard work done closing the books every month, filing government reports. Everything was done manually. We had not entered the computer world. The little bit we were doing was on keypunch cards that we’d put in batches and they’d be run on some giant computer at night, and we got these humongous tab runs delivered by forklift in the morning to start our next day’s work. It was really a tremendously intense paper exercise. So there was a lot of hard work, very exacting, long hours, people worked 10–12 hours normally. Saturdays and Sundays was a common thing, especially at the end of the month. At the end of the fiscal year, we worked around the clock.
So these were hard-working people, very exacting, but they were very family-like. It was a tremendously close-knit group of people. And that kind of style persisted across the whole company. The technical people were the same way. They worked hard, they took care of each other. The time off, it was very common to have house parties. You’d all show up at someone’s home, and you would have a party for whatever the event might be, and if there was no event, we created events. So you got very close to all these people over the years. And because it was pretty stable employment, we stayed together for long periods of time.”
was senior vice president of the engineering and technology group when he retired in 2005. He joined Aerospace in 1969 as a member of the technical staff in the optical systems department. Donna Born interviewed Parsons at Aerospace headquarters on November 6, 2007.
“I had another goal, too, and that was to expand image processing and apply it as broadly as I could—both for our ongoing customers, the military intelligence community, as well as the outside community. And it was one of the first times that image processing—digital image processing, photographs that had been altered or enhanced by a computer—were actually allowed to be put in as evidence. So, we set a standard there, and of course now, it’s a standard thing, with fingerprint analysis—all that’s done by computers.
Another thing I’m actually really proud of, we proposed to Congress to process the Kennedy assassination material. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, so this was actually later than that obviously—this was 1976 or 1977—but they had all this evidence, the Zapruder film and a whole bunch of other things that had just been lying around since they had originally been looked at, but now we had computers and we could do things. So, the House Committee on Assassinations—it was formed to actually revisit the Kennedy assassination—had a contract with us. And they sent us all the films and photos, along with the lawyers—each one had a lawyer—the Zapruder film had a lawyer—and we digitized all that material, and we processed it. And we wrote a report. It’s kind of a special report, and it went to the House Committee on Assassinations. So that was a couple, three months worth of work. I’m proud of that because we got it recognized. And they came to Aerospace because we’re nonpartisan and nonprofit, so they felt comfortable that they would get the straight scoop.
Was there a second gunman on the knoll in Dealey Plaza? We didn’t find one; there were some shadows, but they were trees and leaves and things like that. We analyzed the echoes from the shots, the acoustics—because they were picked up on certain microphones and whatever, but, no, we didn’t—beyond Lee Harvey Oswald, as far as any other conspiracy, we didn’t find anything that was conclusive in that regard.”
Roberta (Bobbie) Ackley
was assistant secretary of the corporation when she retired in 2005. She joined Aerospace in 1974 as an administrative secretary. Steven Strom interviewed Ackley shortly before her retirement at her office in El Segundo.
“The [corporate] culture reflects not only the times outside the company, but it reflects the person who is leading it. So, we’ve had five presidents, and the culture has changed with those presidents. Starting with Dr. Getting, the aerospace industry was new, aerospace as a word was new. Dr. Getting was pretty ‘old school’ in a lot of ways. Never could quite get to calling women ‘women’—they were always ‘girls.’ He was a product of his time. Dr. Rechtin came in 1977, and his wife and his daughters had influenced his life a lot in how he looked at the people elements of the company. Dr. Rechtin came in and really helped to focus more on people skills—clearly not to the detriment of the technical capabilities, but more on people skills. Mr. Tennant became president in 1989. He had grown up in aerospace, aerospace had grown up with him. The difficulty was that that was a time when there was some focus in Washington about whether FFRDCs were doing work that they shouldn’t. We started seeing… We’d had ceilings on us before, but nothing like what happened in the early 1990s. Mr. Aldridge came to become president in March of 1992. And Mr. Aldridge clearly understood the relationship between the Air Force and The Aerospace Corporation because he had been secretary of the Air Force. More importantly, he really understood some of the pressures in Washington that we had not had to deal with before. And so he brought a more political aspect to the company, and was very open to a lot of the people issues. And it was probably a more balanced approach. Dr. Ballhaus [came] with a more business-oriented approach. Aerospace is like a great big family or a small town. And Dr. Ballhaus says, you know, this is a company, we have a bottom line, goals, missions, objectives, and we need to be focused on those, our role, our accountability—and you hear him use the word accountability. Not that the company hasn’t been accountable in all those years, it’s just that he’s putting more focus on the business reason for doing the things that we do.”
joined the Aerospace board of trustees in March 1997 and served as chair from 2000 to 2005. Strom interviewed Parkinson April 1 and June 4, 2003, at Aerospace offices in El Segundo. Parkinson discussed his involvement in navigating GPS through the military and ultimately gaining DOD approval for the program, which had come perilously close to cancellation.
“GPS has been a godsend to the military. It allows you to precisely do in all weather, day and night, what the military is supposed to be doing for the country. It made possible precision weapon delivery—the bomb hits what you think it’s going to hit, and you don’t have all this collateral damage. So I feel good about that. But it doesn’t end there, you’ve got aircraft landings, ships at sea, farm tractors, automobiles, mining equipment, hikers. [It was the work of] a band of people who really believed in it. I led the synthesis, the definition of what GPS is, but the whole story includes the important work done by many people from Aerospace, the Air Force, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the Naval Surface Weapons Center. It’s the culmination of a lot of technologies and support done by a lot of people.”
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